Bringing dead languages and ancient civilizations back to life

The fertile banks of the Nile River gave rise to the long-lasting civilization of ancient Egypt. Although ancient Egyptian culture can be traced back thousands of years, the beginning of the Pharaonic Period is commonly dated to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3150 BC, leading to the creation of an independent state that endured for close to 3,000 years. After the conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, Egypt was successively under Greek, Roman, and Byzantine rule until the Islamic conquest in AD 642.

The Oriental Institute’s relationship with Egypt stretches back more than 100 years, beginning with James Henry Breasted’s travels to the region and the University of Chicago’s financial support of the Egypt Exploration Fund and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in the early twentieth century, predating the founding of the OI in 1919. Ongoing archaeological fieldwork and cultural heritage projects seek to continue our exploration and preservation of ancient Egypt—one of the oldest civilizations on Earth.

The OI's Epigraphic Survey team copying inscriptions on the temple of Ramesses III
Copying inscriptions on the temple of Ramesses III in western Thebes, 1927
The OI's Epigraphic Survey team documenting the small Amun Temple
Documenting the small Amun Temple at Medinet Habu

Chicago House: Recording, interpreting, and preserving the writing on the wall

25.6872º N , 32.6396º E

With a gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Oriental Institute established its first expedition headquarters in Luxor, Egypt, in 1924 to serve as the home of the Epigraphic Survey. Up to the present day, this flagship field project continues its commitment to the preservation of Egypt's cultural heritage by non-destructive means; specifically through the documentation of inscriptions so precise that the records could stand in as replacements for the original monuments.

Using large-format photographs, ink drawings, photogrammetry, 3D scans, text translations, and field reference tools, a team of photographers, artists, epigraphers, and other specialists, led by the field director, arduously records the inscriptions and relief scenes on major temples and tombs for publication and distribution worldwide. The image to the right shows the Survey’s first digitally inked drawing (MHB 91).

Expanding on the initial mission of documentation, the Survey now undertakes conservation, restoration, site management, and conservation training. The team is also leading the way in the development of digital epigraphic recording, including this year’s launch of the digitialEPIGRAPHY. Being completely open-ended, the website is capable of changing as fast as the field does, with instant access to new computerized drawing methods and equipment as the team learns and tests them. This platform is one means by which the Epigraphic Survey continues to innovate with cutting-edge epigraphic recording and publication. 

Picture of first digitally inked drawing by the Epigraphic Survey
Picture of morning in Tell Edfu
Ongoing excavations at Tell Edfu (Photo Raghda El-Behaedi)
Animation of the recently excavated New Kingdom villa at Tell Edfu (Video Gregory Marouard)

Tell Edfu: Exploring 3,000 years of Egyptian history at a single site

24.9792º N , 32.8758º E

Situated on the west bank of the Nile in southern Egypt and dominated by its well-preserved temple from the Hellenistic period, Tell Edfu is one of the rare settlements where nearly 3,500 years of ancient Egyptian history are conserved in the stratigraphy of a single site. Originally settled on an island on the Nile River, Edfu was a provincial capital strategically located at the starting point for Royal mining expeditions to the Eastern Desert, especially during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2400–2200 BC). Continuous occupation over several millennia led to the constant build-up of settlement layers, creating an artificial mound, or a tell, which exceeded more than twenty-two meters (seventy-two feet) in height before the first excavations conducted at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Since the early 2000's, excavations by the OI’s Tell Edfu Project provide an enormous potential for increasing our understanding of ancient urbanism in Egypt, a topic that is still poorly understood. In 2018, the latest discovery of an early New Kingdom (ca. 1500 BC) urban villa, which belonged to a high-ranking elite family, has offered the opportunity to investigate a fully preserved domestic shrine dedicated to ancestor worship. This shrine is one of the earliest examples for such an installation excavated so far for the New Kingdom and the first archaeological example outside of the Theban area discovered in many decades. The Tell Edfu Project also trains University of Chicago students in fieldwork.


We are thrilled to find such a complete set of artifacts within their original archaeological context. This should help us answer a lot of questions about the various cultic activities that were carried out at this shrine, in addition to reconstructing the identities of the former owners who lived in this villa.

Nadine Moeller, Associate Professor and Tell Edfu Project Co-director
Picture of Parchment with Demotic Script
Annuity contract written in the Demotic script

Chicago Demotic Dictionary: Decoding the “script of the people”

The Chicago Demotic Dictionary (CCD) serves as a lexicographic tool for reading texts written in a late stage of the ancient Egyptian language and in a highly cursive script known as Demotic. Because it generally replaced hieratic for everyday purposes, the Greeks referred to this script as demotika (“[script] of the people”). Demotic texts not only provide important records of the development of ancient Egyptian linguistic and paleographical traditions, but also help to reconstruct the social, political, and cultural life of ancient Egypt during a fascinating period of its history. The CDD, therefore, provides a crucial tool for the study of changes in ancient Egyptian language and culture.

1,000 pages projected for the CCD
25 average number of scans illustrating orthography of Demotic words per dictionary page